I’m blogging from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) show in San Diego. Obviously the focus of most discussions here is on unusual, innovative, technologically fantastic unmanned systems. But one person, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik, now Assistant Commissioner for the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Air and Marine division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), [phew!] thinks one of the most important elements of the unmanned systems loop is, well, the man.
If we talk about the unmanned part of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), we’re falling for a “slight of hand, it’s a misdirection,” Kostelnik said. “The critical part of UAVs is not the system, not the technology, the satellite or the remote control. It’s the people in the system.”
It’s not an entirely new thought – an Army General at the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad A) show recently talked about UAVs’ lack of “situational curiosity.” Machines don’t know why they’re looking at something, they only point in the direction you ask them to. It takes the ground controller or combatant commander to interpret the data to make it relevant.
People should also take the blame for mistakes, Kostelnik said. “The cause of [a recent Predator accident] had nothing to do with the unmanned portion,” he said. “We crashed a perfectly good aircraft because people make mistakes.”
The biggest bottleneck in UAV operations is people to fly them, Kostelnik said. CBP is training their own workforce right now so that instead of using contractors, CBP can rely on its own crews to complete missions from start to finish. “Just like the military, we’ll fly them ourselves,” he said. “And that’s not without risk or challenge. It’s not difficult to fly, but it’s different than flying a real live aircraft.”
The CBP is working on a “deployment vision” for UAVs as well. “Where are you going?” Kostelnik asked. “That depends… I don’t know what our vision is in Homeland Security and I don’t know where we’re going to go.” The first step will be to determine the threat. “Will we see another 9/11?”
CBP is “learning the system, expanding operations, learning to fly…these [UAVs] do things our manned aircraft cannot,” he said. “There’s not a single manned aircraft in the Homeland Security inventory that can do what a Predator B can do.”
That may be. But obviously, there isn’t a pilot in the Air Force that can do what a crew of “unmanned men” can do either.